The Pattern of World Agriculture

Having considered the ways in which both physical and social-economic factors influence the type of farming in any area, we now examine the patterns produced by these processes.

Problems of Delimitation and Classification

It is obvious that the farms in any area will have an almost unlimited number of attributes such as size, a form of tenure, degree of fragmentation, size of the labour force, type of production and value of output, to name just a few. Since it is highly unlikely that there will be a complete spatial correlation in the degree of variation of these attributes, it may be argued that for any given area there are a number of sets of agricultural regions, depending on the criteria selected. The sets will not necessarily coincide. Such agricultural regions are termed single-feature or special-purpose regions. Alternatively, it can be argued that while all the attributes of the farms are unlikely to co-vary exactly, they can be reduced to a single index figure and agricultural regions delimited according to the distribution of these index values. Working in this way it is possible to produce a system of multiple-feature or general-purpose regions.

Either approach can be applied to small areas for which there are comprehensive and detailed statistics, but unfortunately, such information is lacking for most parts of the world other than the UK and USA with their parish and county statistics respectively. Thus, while geographers have made great progress in recent years in developing procedures for delimiting small agricultural regions, the lack of an adequate database has prevented the application of new analytical techniques on a world scale. The approach that has generally been adopted in the past is for a number of agricultural types to be assumed a priori to exist, and then for each part of the world to be allocated to one particular category on the basis of the scanty cartographic information, inadequate statistical data and vague descriptive accounts that are available.

Most schemes of classification of world agriculture attempt to formulate a system of general-purpose regions, although care must be taken to employ criteria which are capable of quantification and which emphasise elements or characteristics of the farming system rather than factors of the physical environment. Thus, the use of climatic factors or soil types is unsatisfactory since it presupposes rather than proves their influence on farming practices. Several early classifications of world agriculture, such as that proposed by H. Engelbrecht in 1930, consisted of little more than a map of world climatic regions with the substitution of an agricultural nomenclature.

In a recent study of the problems involved in identifying agricultural types and classifying world agriculture, D. Grigg recommended a number of basic criteria which should be taken into account. These were the degree of commercialisation, type of tenure and scale of the enterprise, the intensity of farming, crop and livestock combinations and methods of farming. These factors provide a logical basis for agricultural classification, but in practice, their application poses many problems. For example, in recent years peasant farmers in many parts of the world have turned increasingly to the cultivation of cash crops so that the traditional distinction between subsistence and commercial farming is now far less clear than formerly. The intensity of farming is difficult to define, measure and compare. Dairying in the UK and rice-growing in South-East Asia are both intensive systems of agriculture, but in different ways: one is capital-intensive, the other labour-intensive. Methods of farming constitute one of the major differences between regions, but the level of agricultural technology is difficult to reduce to a single measurable and mappable factor. Even the seemingly simple question of crop and livestock combinations is not without difficulties of application. India, for example, has over 15 per cent of the world’s cattle but produces negligible amounts of milk and meat. Should the presence of 182 million cattle in India be taken into account, therefore, in allocating the country to a particular agricultural category? However, lest the problems of classification and delimitation appear insoluble, one of the more successful systems of classification will be examined next.

World Agricultural Regions: A System Examined

Evaluated on the basis of the points raised by D. Grigg, one of the most satisfactory, and also one of the earliest, attempts to formulate a classification of world agriculture was that proposed by D. Whittlesey in 1936. He employed five criteria for his definition of world agricultural regions: namely, crop and livestock combinations, the intensity of land use, processing and marketing of farm produce, degree of mechanisation and types and associations of buildings and other structures associated with agriculture. Assessment of these factors appears to have been subjective rather than quantitative.

Although a particular type of production dominates in each one, it is possible to carry on other types of farming at higher cost by using larger inputs of capital and labour and accepting a smaller profit margin. Thus, in each of Whittlesey’s regions, various other forms of agriculture are also found. Nevertheless, his basic classification still provides the foundation for many current atlas maps and most textbook descriptions of world agriculture.

A problem inherent in any scheme of regional classification is that of agricultural change, especially the evolution and modernisation of traditional systems under the influence of Western technology, finance and management. Agricultural developments during recent decades have tended to reduce the differences between various parts of the world. For example, there has been a blurring of the distinction between commercial and subsistence farming. There has also been some reduction in the diversity of tenurial systems and a spread of state or communal ownership in many parts of the world. Diversification of former monoculture systems has led to greater emphasis being placed on livestock in many farming systems. Differences in regional productivity have also been reduced to some extent by efforts to improve farming efficiency by increased mechanisation and the greater use of fertilisers. As a result of such changes, various revisions and modifications of Whittlesey’s early scheme were undertaken by economic geographers during the 1960s, notably by R. S. Thoman and D. Fryer in 1962 and 1965 respectively, although the original scheme was modified in detail only.


Classification and delimitation of agricultural regions on a world scale presents many problems. These arise chiefly from the inadequacy of the database and the constantly changing character of farming activity in response to social, economic and technological developments.